An 8-track player is a type of audio recorder and playback device created in the 1960s. Developed by the Lear Jet Corporation, the 8-track player gained a reputation in the United States for its portability. With the development of cassette tapes, and later CDs and mp3 players, the 8-track player fell largely out of fashion by the early 1980s and is something of a novelty item in the 21st century.
An 8-track player uses a form of audio technology known as a continuous loop. The cartridge has a long strip of tape divided into eight separate tracks; each song or program uses only two of the tracks at a time. The tape is pulled in an continuous motion across a playback head, which shifts position at the beginning of each new song or program to read the two tracks in use. The design of the cartridge allows the tape to be pulled up from the center, pulled across the playback head, and wound back around the central hub, thus being able to play continuously.
Somewhat surprisingly, the inventors of the original 8-track player are better known for creating jet technology. Bill Lear, the head of the Lear Jet Corporation, had considerable experience in the development of communication instruments for airplanes, and it was under his direction that the 8-track was refined from earlier designs. By teaming with automobile manufacturers, the new audio player became one of the first playback devices to be installed in cars, which previously relied solely on radio stations for entertainment. Suddenly, the world had an portable audio player, a function that record players could not hope to accomplish because of their necessary bulk. Home versions of the 8-track player were quickly released, and the device became a staple of entertainment.
While the 8-track player was a big step for the audio industry, it would serve merely as an interim development. Despite its portability and relative ease of use, the device was subject to numerous problems. The playback head could easily shift out of alignment, and the tape itself eroded quickly due to wear. Additionally, although it was technically portable, the cartridges were large and bulky in an era that increasingly demanded convenience.
The rise of audio cassette tapes in the late 1970s spelled the demise of the 8-track player. Though aficionados frequently point out the superior audio quality of the earlier device, the compact cassettes boasted a smaller size, fewer problems, and a longer shelf life. In the 21st century, 8-track players are a rare novelty often traded by enthusiasts, but have fallen completely by the wayside as a commercial product in the wake of digital audio technology.